How to Become a 31-Year-Old with A College Degree and No Idea What You’re Doing

I value passion and purpose so much, so why don’t I have it?

Jessica Mathis
13 min readJul 7, 2020
Shooting concert footage for a DVD, 2018 | Photo by John Mathis

I thought by my age that I would be successful, financially stable, and working a fulfilling job in a career I loved. I dreamed of this as a child and teenager because that’s what adults do — they become successful and financially stable. I didn’t have any idea what my dream job would be; I just assumed it would all simply fall into place. How? Through magic, maybe? I don’t know. Whatever adults do. Ask me now, as a well-into-adulthood adult, and I still think it might be magic.

Or is it something far simpler, that I’ve known all along, but haven’t adhered to?

Here’s what I’ve learned in the pursuit of happiness and career fulfillment:

Go to College Because…Obviously

When I graduated college in 2017, I became the first one to do so in my family, something I took great pride in. It took me a long time to get there — taking semesters off, taking online classes, using a part-time schedule — but I finally did it, and that’s all that matters, right?

Wrong. Finishing was only half the battle. I wanted to find my calling, using the degree as a pathway to my dream job and ultimate fulfillment. No that isn’t the setup to a joke. That was my real plan.

Let’s rewind to 2007, when I started community college. I had no idea what I wanted a degree in. Not the slightest clue even what I wanted to do in the real world, much less what to major in. I hadn’t prepped at all. No aptitude test. No guidance counselor (I was homeschooled). No books. The advisor I had at this local community college was not going to be the one to help me figure it out, either. I could tell he just wanted to do the bare minimum to get me registered.

I remember him asking me what major I wanted to declare. He had his pen poised to mark my selection permanently on a student form. It felt like a huge commitment. I probably looked at a list of options, or he hurriedly listed some, I don’t remember exactly. But, feeling the sense of urgency, I quickly picked English. I remember not feeling super confident about my hugely influential and life-altering choice that I had made in under 5 seconds. I was 18; everything feels like a big deal when you have no idea what you’re doing.

But that’s how I became an English major. It was, I’d say, pretty anti-climactic.

Just…Be a Writer

The only thing I felt like I was good at growing up was writing. That sentence’s weird structure might beg to differ, but plenty of non-family members told me they enjoyed my style of writing. I enjoyed it, too, so I thought I’d be a writer. It seemed like the only realistic option. I had no other real interests or passions that could be turned into careers. And if I ever did, I shot them down quickly and with little thought.

By the time I decided to “be a writer” as my career, I had given up on my degree being the path to my dreams. So I decided to focus on being a writer, using the English degree I was working toward to bolster my credibility.

In my quest to be a bonafide writer, I started working on a site that’s now called Upwork. It’s a bidding site where “writers” submit proposals for available jobs, including their rate, resume, and cover letter. The “winner” is usually the lowest bidding person who is even remotely qualified. If you don’t know what Upwork is, let me summarize by saying that I put writer in quotes for a reason. And “winner”. It’s the most soulless type of writing possible. Imagine: writing based on bidding wars not being the best quality.

First of all, I didn’t have a named credit for any client I had (and I had over a dozen clients, many with recurring projects); I was a ghostwriter. Fine, whatever. It’s still experience right? Yeah, technically, but I enjoyed probably 1% of the content I ever wrote, and I would still use the term “enjoyed” generously. It was not stuff I was particularly proud of. Not just because of the topics, but the content. They claim they want you to write engaging, but informative articles, but really they want to cram as many keywords into an article as possible and have you follow really strict guidelines that include not showing your personality. You’re a ghostwriter for their brand, after all. Again, makes sense, but I still hated it.

Nevertheless, I thought this was how you become a writer. You pay your dues. You do shitty jobs. But it led me nowhere — nowhere good anyway. I was able to raise my rate on Upwork and try to sift out higher-paying clients. But this type of writing, for content mills, as they’re called, is essentially putting you in a cycle of only working for Upwork. It felt really weak to apply for real writing jobs with my resume of bland, lifeless articles about cold sore creams and Pilates equipment. I got zero jobs outside of Upwork, though I applied for many.

This is to say nothing of the fact that real freelance writing usually entails going after clients and making opportunities for yourself. There are legitimate job listings for contract writers and staff writers, but a lot of successful freelancers pitch article ideas and do “cold emailing”. None of which I attempted at the time because I thought I needed more experience. Then, I realized my experience was unflattering. To this day, I still have not attempted freelance pitches for many reasons that we will label: excuses.

I toyed with the idea of a blog and website during this time period, which resulted in a quick stint of a very amateur go at blogging called Jessica Mathis Inc. The second time I tried a blog on Wordpress, which led to the current iteration of my blog, The Unplug Initiative. It also led to creating a totally superfluous music blog, which I love writing for, but don’t update as much: Queen Dopamine — The Wonderful World of Music.

Blogging has been hit or miss for many reasons. Why? Glad you asked.

Start a blog! Everyone’s Doing It!

They make blogging sound so easy, don’t they? Everyone can do it! It’s so simple! You can get sooo many views, AND EVEN MAKE MONEY. Besides, I already enjoyed writing, so it seemed like a breeze many years ago when I established my first (now-defunct) website, Jessica Mathis Inc.

Yeah, let me shed some light on this. Blogging means a lot more than just setting up shop on Wordpress, picking out a cute template, and writing.

Sure, you can do that, but do you want to write for your own personal satisfaction, or do you want someone to actually read it? If you’re like me, then you want people to read what you throw out into the void. To do that, successful bloggers utilize SEO, write guest posts for other blogs, host guest bloggers on their own blog, network a lot with other bloggers and writers, post consistently on social media, have newsletters and landing pages, know their analytics, make tons of freebies for their readers, use affiliate links, ebooks, and paid courses to their advantage, utilize paid plugins and other helpful tools for research, AND they write a lot on their blogs.

It’s a lot, far more than “just writing”. Almost every “side hustle” article or “supplemental income” article will list starting a blog like it’s that easy. It’s not. It’s hard work like any other freelance, self-made job. I just want to write though. You can see my dilemma, then. I want people to read it, but I only want to write, not do any of the not-fun stuff. But isn’t that life? Doing the not-fun stuff to get what you want?

I haven’t done any of the necessary stuff to be a successful blogger with the same conviction and dedication as my peers. I get easily discouraged, hate how tiring and dull it feels to do, and get wistful about “just writing”. My peers actually work hard at all the stuff, even the “not-fun stuff”, thus, they are more successful and get views.

On the bright side, I did manage to post more in 2019 than I ever have before, and I did engage in some comment exchanges (which feel pointless, but ultimately boost your Google ranking), plus I built up a healthy network of friends and colleagues on Twitter. That all feels good, but if I want views, I’m going to have to buckle down and work a little harder. Even when it doesn’t feel good.

But blogging and writing weren’t my only path to success. No, I randomly got into a completely unrelated field for reasons that were questionable at best, and completely rushed and spontaneous at worst.

Change Your Major to Video and Film Production…Because You Like Making Narratives Using Your Webcam

I changed my major in college in 2014 to video and film production based on my love of making little narrative-driven videos using my webcam. I told myself I could just be a writer without a degree (little did I know, I could make films without a degree, too, but here we are), so that seemed like a totally legitimate reason to switch my major.

At the time, it was a bold switch to go from writing, something I was very familiar with, to something cool, new, and exciting that I knew absolutely nothing about. I knew it would be a long-shot to make it to a movie set or become a famous director, but those weren’t even my goals. I didn’t have a real goal, honestly, but I told myself, even if I didn’t make a career out of it, I would learn a lot and have fun.

Turns out that latter part was definitely true. I did learn a lot , and I had so much fun with what I did in school — live production, filmmaking, getting to do hands-on projects, work with some of the most awesome people, and get real-life experience. I made connections and learned cool things, a lot of which would not have been possible if I had tried to start on my own as a newbie or educate myself with YouTube. I didn’t do as much as I could have in college because depression is real and life is hard, but I am happy with what I did do.

I remember one hot, long day, after shooting a football game, logging well over 12 hours that I knew I was in the right place because I was happy, even when it was hard. That’s how I knew I had found my purpose.

Purpose. That’s something I’ve dwelled on a bunch. I feel like I know the value of it, but I’ve struggled to hold onto anything resembling it.

Well, turns out I was wrong anyway. I tried to survive as a freelancer my first year out of college. With no savings and no other financial support. First of all, don’t do that. Although a lot of my friends did that and advised me to do the same, they had varying financial situations, and I was not in a place to just quit my main sources of income and live as a freelancer. I went into debt. I had to rely on my ex-boyfriend to pay for some things. I scraped everywhere I could for extra cash.

It’s not that it’s impossible, it’s just that quitting your job and freelancing full-time without any leads or any savings, is quite dumb. Other people had success because they had different situations, whether they had savings, someone else to rely on for income, or they had major job prospects that could carry them immediately. I thought things would open up because I was available, but I didn’t have anyone banging down my door. I did get some gigs, but they weren’t what I needed to literally survive as a freelancer.

It was a harsh wakeup call.

I did get a good chunk of gigs that year, 2018. They were mostly lower-level gigs, grunt work essentially, but it was still cool to work in the business. However, I learned something far more valuable than what I learned from school. I didn’t like it.

For one, I was doing mostly Production Assistant jobs, instead of camera operator jobs, which was what I enjoyed the most in college. The problem is cam op jobs are incredibly high demand, while PA jobs are lackeys who run errands and do what anyone above them asks — hint: everyone is above you.

Oh, also the pay is shit. In 12 hours, I could make far more working a retail job than the flat rate you earn as a PA. 12 hours is a standard day in the film industry, FYI. Those long days, I found, were not for me. Some people in the industry are absolute martyrs about it — don’t feel sorry for you if you’re tired and sore, equate suffering with hard work, practically bragging about how long they work. It’s how the industry is and frankly, I don’t blame them for having that attitude. People like that are who survive and thrive. I knew that getting in. At least I thought I did.

My body couldn’t physically take it. My joints, my back, my fatigue levels. I wasn’t cut out for it. I sometimes wonder what would happen if I were to pursue it now that I’ve changed my diet, started exercising again, and gotten into supplements and nootropics.

Just because it didn’t work out as a full-time freelance career doesn’t mean I’ve given up entirely on the film or live production industry. I would love to make short films with friends again, or other filmmakers just looking to get their passion project made. It can really be a fun time, regardless of pay. I would even love to make my own, as that was why I originally got into the industry. I had stories I wanted to tell visually.

I just wasn’t cut out for production as a career. That’s okay. Will I get over it? As Dwight Schrute answered in response to the same question on The Office, “No. But life goes on.”

Where would I go with this knowledge? Besides back to retail (which I also did)…

Wish You Would Have Just Finished Your English Degree

I’m actually so grateful for the friends I met in the film industry, the experiences I have, and the knowledge I would have never otherwise pursued. Storytelling is still ingrained in me, and I don’t want to abandon the visual side of it. So it’s definitely not wasted.

But I also probably didn’t need a degree to run around with my camera and make videos or help people on their short films.

Plus, I actually enjoyed the English classes I took late in my college career. I minored in English since I had a few credits toward it, and the higher-level classes were really intriguing. I enjoyed critical thinking, lively discussion, and of course, essays.

Oh well. I probably would have regretted not changing my major, too. Such is life.

I went back to working in retail, not really latching onto anything else until I moved to Indiana and started working in Information Technology with zero experience in the field. Several things have sparked my interest along the way though…

Come Up with A Hundred Different Exciting Ideas. Shoot Down Every One.

Yoga teacher. Medical coder. Program coder. Social worker. Medical assistant. Game designer. Technical writer. Psychologist. Wildlife handler at a zoo. I’ve had these bright ideas, and many more, that seem really cool and exciting, but then, I decide not to pursue them, for one reason or another. The path to get there is too expensive, the job burnout is real, I realize after a few days I don’t actually think the career fits me (despite no real-world experience).

It’s just laughable how many times I get excited about the potential something has, then quickly give up before even starting. It’s like I just want to be excited about something, but when it comes to reality, I can’t justify doing it, or something.

Fail to Manage Expectations and Not Put in the Work for Long Enough

This is it. The real reason I have no dream job and I feel aimless. It’s not that I lack purpose or passion. I bleed passion! I am bursting with a sense of purpose!

I think I just set myself up for failure sometimes. I expect the world and when I don’t see the results I want quickly, I get discouraged.

I wonder what I could have accomplished by now if I had stuck with it. And I don’t stick with anything, at least not whole-heartedly. I’ve never 100% stuck with any of these paths when things got hard, or when other priorities popped up. I never stayed steadfast in my desire to keep doing it. I shunted it off to the backburner indefinitely.

“I can pursue [passion/purpose] on the side, when I have time! Just casually!” Yeah, that’s not what people who are passionate about something say. It’s a huge part of their life. It requires sacrifice, discipline, and hard work.

If I have put in half-ass effort, then I’m going to see half-ass results.

I’m sure Rome wasn’t built in a day for a reason. Overnight success is incredibly rare and unrealistic. So why do I expect and desire it overnight? It takes consistent input, every day.

I can’t expect to get the same results as people I admire, even envy, if I’m only putting in a fraction of the effort or time.

By now, if I had consistently done all the success tactics for bloggers, perhaps my blog would be receiving a lot more views. Maybe if I summoned the courage to do freelance pitches, I would have reputable, well-paid clients on my resume. Maybe if I had approached my video and film production career differently, I would still be working in the industry and doing something I liked a lot more.

These are all what-ifs and maybe. But it’s not too late.

I basically have my roadmap, right here, in black and white. I now know what not to do. I think I know what to do when I want to give up.

I just have to keep going.



Jessica Mathis

Writer at The Unplug Initiative. Mental health advocate. Doing my best in the pursuit of self-improvement.